Gov. Rick Scott moved Tuesday to defuse litigation over his authority to replace the Florida Supreme Court’s liberal wing by offering to confer with his successor on candidates to fill the seats of Fred Lewis, Peggy Quince and Barbara Pariente.
Scott had said he planned to announce their replacements on Jan. 7, his last day in office, which coincides with their retirement date.
Instead, he took a page from the late Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles, who reached a similar accord with incoming Republican Jeb Bush in 1998.
Scott emphasized that precedent in a press release announcing his move.
“The Governor’s expectation is that he and the governor-elect – like Gov. Chiles and then Gov.-elect Bush – will agree on the selection of three justices who will serve with distinction,” the release says.
“Gov. Scott will not appoint any justice to the Florida Supreme Court until the governor-elect has had an opportunity to interview the nominees and review their references and qualifications.”
In a historical irony, Quince is the last justice appointed through such consultations.
The League of Women Voters of Florida and Common Cause filed suit in June, asking the courts to block Scott appointments. Their unstated concern was that Scott, a Naples Republican, would pack the court with more conservatives.
In a 6-1 decision, the Supreme Court said in December that it couldn’t step into the controversy because the Governor hadn’t taken any action yet.
Chief Justice Jorge Labarga, usually a swing vote, joined with the court’s conservatives: Justices Charles Canady, Ricky Polston and Alan Lawson.
Pariente and Quince concurred, but Lewis dissented and called Scott’s proposed actions “blatantly unconstitutional.”
The League and Common Cause had argued that the Governor can’t replace the justices because he’ll be out of office earlier on the same day they retire, and their final judicial terms last till midnight.
Scott didn’t mention the litigation in his press release, but did say the retiring justices were “constitutionally ineligible to serve beyond the expiration of their current terms.”
The nominating and appointment process can take as long as four months, including background screening and reviews of The Florida Bar’s disciplinary records, Scott said.
“Beginning the process to fill these vacancies right now follows the practice of previous governors. Florida’s Supreme Court is so important to Floridians, and we will work together to select the most qualified justices to faithfully serve our state,” he added.
“With more than six decades of combined service on the court, these three justices have made their mark on the state’s jurisprudence. To minimize or avoid any period of vacancy on the Supreme Court, the nominating process must begin well in advance of these vacancies.”
In an email, the campaign communications director for Andrew Gillum, the Democratic nominee for Governor, disagreed.
“In our understanding of the Constitution, the next Governor will appoint the next three Supreme Court justices,” Geoff Burgan said.